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What President Obama should have said regarding energy policy

We meet here at a tumultuous time for the world. In a matter of months, we’ve seen regimes toppled and democracy take root across North Africa and the Middle East. One particular area of concern is our energy supply, both present and in the future. It very much affects all of our nation’s actions, both at home and abroad.

I am afraid we have not been entirely open and honest about the situation in the past, but I want to make a change, and talk about the real energy situation, and start making plans for a lower-energy world. In the not too distant future–probably within the next 20 to 50 years, but perhaps as soon as the next 10 years, we will need to go back to using just the energy resources that we receive each day to sustain this world. This will require a very different type of society than we have today.

Our Current Predicament

In the last 200 years, roughly the time the United States has been existence, the world has been transformed through the use of fossil fuels. Huge economic growth has been possible, as well as huge aggregation of wealth. We have gone from a nation of people who walked and used animals for transport, to one that depends on cars, trucks, trains, and jets for transport. We have been able to develop electrical availability for every purpose, and many devices, including computers and the Internet. The world has gone from being able to support less than 1 billion people, to being able to support nearly 7 billion people.

Figure 1. World Population Growth

Figure 2. World population, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red)

We now need to start planning to go back again to a world without fossil fuels. This decision is not our choice. We would like to postpone the decision as long as possible, but it is not clear how much longer we can postpone it. The decision is being imposed on us by outside forces. The force you hear most about is climate change, but this is only one of many issues.

The real issue is that we have built an economy that requires growth to survive, but this is no longer possible, because of difficulty in obtaining cheap fossil fuels needed to run our economy. We have also raised the world population to a point where we need fossil fuels to keep food production at its current high level. We are reaching the point where economic collapse, reaching all aspects of living, is not only possible; it is quite likely.

Problems with Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are becoming more difficult to extract, because we extracted the high quality, easy-to-extract resources first. What we have left are fossil fuel resources that are much more difficult (expensive) to extract, and often of lower quality, and more polluting. In the not too distant future, we will reach the point where we are spending as much to extract the fuel as the value society gets from the fuel. Some would argue that we are already reaching this level when one considers the pollution issues associated with coal, the potential for spills with oil drilling, and the issues with potential damage to water supplies, when using “fracking” to obtain natural gas.

Figure 3. World Fossil Fuel Production

The total amount of fossil fuel resources extracted around the world continues to rise, but it is fairly certain that within the next 30 years, world fossil fuel resources that can be profitably extracted even in the absence of collapse will decline. If collapse occurs, a decline in all fossil fuel extraction is likely to take place in the years following collapse.

Oil resources are the highest quality fossil fuel resources. Figure 3 shows that world oil extraction has been close to flat for over six years now, and even prior to 2004, was not rising rapidly. Future problems with oil supply appear to have a serious chance of inducing collapse.

Oil prices recently have been volatile. The US and many other countries went into recession when oil prices peaked in 2008. There are signs that economic strain are reaching the world economy, even as oil prices are again rising. We have heard about the financial difficulties of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. If oil prices continue to rise, we are likely enter a new recession, even worse than the last one. If this happens, it is likely that United States, Britain, Japan, and much of the rest of the world will face debt default.

Figure 4. US Liquid fuels by source (petroleum and substitutes)

The US has been an oil importer for many years, even though it is at this point the third largest oil producer in the world. We expect imported oil to become less and less available in the years ahead. This is one of the reasons we need to change our way of life, so we use less oil and fossil fuels of all types.

Fossil Fuel Extenders

We have attempted for years to find substitutes, but have had limited success. Our biggest success came years ago, with hydroelectric, but even these plants require fossil fuels for upkeep, so probably cannot be maintained in its current form for the long term. Much smaller plants could perhaps be maintained without fossil fuels.

Figure 5. United States Electricity Generation by source, based on BP and EIA data. "Renewables" relates to wood, waste, geothermal, wind, and solar combined.

Wind is used as a fossil fuel extender for electricity production, but cannot be expected to last any longer than oil availability, so is of limited benefit for the long term.

Solar photovoltaic is also a fossil fuel extender. Individual panels can last longer than the grid, but we will not be able to manufacture them without fossil fuels. Also, they require an electrically powered inverter, so should also be considered fossil fuel extenders.

In the future, we will drop the word “renewables” when referring to these sources of electricity, since the fuel sources we have been able to identify are simply fossil fuel extenders, and will lose their usefulness within a few years after we lose fossil fuel use.

Nuclear has been another big success as a fossil fuel extender, now powering 20% of the United State’s electricity. Along the US East Coast, 30% to 35% of electricity is powered with nuclear. But it too needs fossil fuels, to extract and refine fuel, to clean up after accidents, and to decommission plants at the ends of their lifetimes.

Wood and other plant material is probably the only true renewable resource, but it is in quite limited supply. The US ran short of wood resources in the 1800s, when trying to heat homes with wood. We will need to watch our use of wood and plant material very closely, so as to not repeat these mistakes.

Biofuels as they are currently produced depend upon oil for growing the corn, plus natural gas or coal for the conversion process, and oil for shipping the finished product. Thus biofuels are primarily fossil fuel extenders, although perhaps they could be produced on a much more limited extent without fossil fuels. After all, American’s had stills in the days of prohibition, and the same principles work today.

Plans for the Future

I know people would like to transition to what we have thought of as “renewables”, but as we have seen, most of the alternative sources we have are simply fossil fuel extenders, that will disappear at the same time, or shortly after fossil fuels. What are truly renewable are growing plant and animal materials, which are in short supply.

We will have to change our lives very dramatically, to adapt to the new world. Even though we don’t know how soon this new world will arrive, we need to start taking steps to work toward this transition.

Let me first outline how the new world will likely look. As far as we can see now, most people will need to be farmers, or at least growing food on a small plot of land. Hopefully, the farmers will be able to produce enough surplus that trades people and small businesses can make a living as well. It is doubtful that there will be large businesses, especially large international businesses. Cities are likely to become much smaller, and population in the countryside will rise. Education will be much more limited than today. People will still be happy, but in a very different world.

Fortunately, he United States has quite a bit of arable land. According to the CIA World Factbook, the US has the equivalent of 437 million acres of arable land, and a population of 311 million, or an average of 1.4 acres of arable land per person. This might be enough to provide an adequate food supply, if resources are managed well, although it will be necessary to look into the details. It is not clear that there will be much room for large animals, such as cows or horses, unless the number of people is lower. New homes built will likely need to be very modest, probably without electricity or indoor plumbing.

With this background, these are the steps I am recommending that we take immediately:

1. $1 billion a year will be directed toward research on growing crops, using manual labor. What crops would work best, in which locations? What techniques should be used to assure long-term soil fertility (crop rotation, spreading of manure, “green manure” crops)? How should pests be kept away from crops, without pesticides or commercial fences? Where can simple irrigation techniques be used? As part of this effort, seeds will need to be developed for each area, along with techniques for seed-saving from year to year.

2. $1 billion a year will be directed toward research on preserving locally grown foods, recipes for locally grown foods, and techniques for cooking locally grown foods, without the use of electricity or fossil fuels. In addition, we will start teaching teachers about these techniques.

3. We will start immediate work with the UN to try to put together a new international financial system, that does not depend on debt and growth. The sticking point is likely to be countries who would like to buy goods and services from other countries, but have little to trade in return. If these countries have previously defaulted on their debt, other countries will not want to trade with them. Since additional debt seems imprudent, the US federal government will not raise its debt ceiling further. A 10% tax will be placed on all new debt entered into by private parties, as well.

4. We will discontinue research on and funding for most fossil fuel extenders. We will take steps to phase out the biofuel requirement, so as to have more land for growing food. We will discontinue special programs for wind and solar PV. We will cease to give tax credits for electric cars. We will also discontinue research on carbon capture and storage, since it appears to have little chance of being finished before we stop using coal anyway, and because it will result in an even faster burning of coal than otherwise. If there is evidence that a technology could possibly extend the time before collapse, such as thorium, work will be continued in such an area.

5. We will continue and greatly expand research on tools and techniques that can be used to make life better, without fossil fuels. These will include solar hot water heating, passive solar heating for homes, solar cookers (using mirrors), small wind and water turbines that can be used to run and pumps machines. We will also research the best of old technologies such as treadle sewing machines, spinning wheels, looms, and cotton gins. Textbooks will be put together, showing how these devices can be made with local materials, including metal recycled from other uses.

6. Families will be encouraged to have at most two children, with one child preferred. Tax laws will be changed to give same-sex couples the same tax breaks as married couples.

7. Over the last 40 year years, tax revenues from companies have all but disappeared, because international corporations can be structured to avoid taxes, and because many companies that sell goods in the United States are domiciled elsewhere. To put an end to these issues, the tax code will be changed to tax all goods and services (such as insurance) that are produced outside of the United States, but sold here. This tax will gradually be raised. At the same time taxes, on small local producers of goods and services will be lowered. Also, regulations will be rewritten so that they are suitable for small local businesses.

8. Schools will develop new curriculum that will emphasize the skills needed in the future. In particular, they will emphasize (1) math without calculators (but perhaps with abacuses and slide rules), (2) memorization, (3) growing crops and raising small animals (4) cooking with local ingredients, without fossil fuels, (5) food preservation (6) construction without fossil fuels (7) cloth-making and construction of clothing, (8) composting and recycling of human and animal waste (9) building rainwater catchment systems, (10) first aid and home medical care. Students should also have the opportunity to learn other skills, such as paper making, tanning of leather, making of shoes, and making of baskets and pottery.

9. An emphasis will be placed on a healthy lifestyle, rather than medical cures for every ailment. Medical care will gradually be scaled back, with coverage for the elderly and care for newborns under 4 pounds scaled back first. Also, if death is expected within six months, regardless of care, the only treatment provided will be palliative care. No coverage will be provided for fertility care or in vitro fertilization. Clinics charging a fee equal to three times the US hourly minimum wage will be encouraged. Providers will be asked to accept these charges as payment in full for their work.

10. We will develop a plan for buying land from large agricultural owners, and reselling (or gifting) the land back to individuals who demonstrate adequate skills for growing crops on the land. It may be that co-operatives can be formed to produce crops in areas now owned by large farmers.

11. Because we will be needing fewer roads in the future, and asphalt is an oil product, we will encourage states to cut back on the proportion of roads that are paved. We will stop funding for new lanes for roads, and for airport expansions. We will encourage cities to set aside streets to be used only by those using bicycles or walking.

12. To show our support for the new way of life, Michelle and I will turn the entire White House lawn into garden and space for a few goats and chickens. I will start riding a bicycle or walking from the White House to the Capitol, and will encourage members of Congress to do the same. I will cut back on my travel by 50%, trying to solve most problems by telephone or video conference. We will untangle our ties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, so there is not the need to send troops there, and military spending can be limited to what is needed for domestic needs.

I wish I could promise to build trains and rapid transit, but these will not be useful without fossil fuels. Also, there are likely to be many fewer people in cities, because so many people will be farmers, and because disease transmission in confined spaces is likely to again be a problem, especially if animals are used for transport. People in cities will need to walk as their primary form of transportation. It is possible bicycle transport can be maintained, but not certain that this is the case. Boats and barges have been a good form of transport for many years, and their use will be encouraged and expanded.

Energy efficiency is also not very much of an issue, if the primary goal is to move to a society that does not use fossil fuels. This is the case because there is no point in working to make fossil fuel using devices such as cars and trucks more efficient, if they are not to be used in the future. Energy can be saved by making fewer of them instead.

Climate Change or Collapse

Many people believe that Climate Change is the primary threat to the world today. This belief is based on the view that the exponential growth shown in Figures 1 and 2 will continue.

I am not of the belief that exponential growth shown in Figures 1 and 2 can continue. We can try to hold it up for a bit, so as to prevent collapse, but we are not likely to be very successful in preventing collapse for very long.

Because of the need to hold up exponential growth for the short-term, we will continue and expand oil and natural gas drilling in the United States. We do not kid ourselves that this additional drilling will make a huge difference, but it will provide energy resources needed to help with the transition, and may help keep the country from defaulting on its debt obligations for a while.

Figure 6. EIA Figure from the Early Release Overview of Annual Energy Release 2011. (Upper caption is EIA's.)

We note that the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its Early Release for Annual Energy Outlook 2011, expects that US natural gas efforts will result in only a very modest rise in natural gas production. If such a modest increase does result, it seems likely that businesses will modify a few of their fleet vehicles to use natural gas, without any special tax incentives. We note too that shale gas producers cannot make money at current prices, based on many analyses. If natural gas prices do not rise, even the limited growth in natural gas production seen by the EIA may prove optimistic.

While some may argue that we do not need to start planning for a world without fossil fuel, I believe that we need to start now, because the transition will take a number of years, and we don’t know when we will need to make the change. Even if we are able to continue exponential growth for a few more years, we know that exponential growth cannot continue forever because the world is finite. It makes sense to start planning for the disappearance of fossil fuels, now, while we still have them, and can use them to ease the transition.

* * *

Thank you for attending my talk today! I am sure if we work together, we can make this difficult transition a successful one.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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